Challengers of the Unknown #1–6
by Howard Chaykin
Howard Chaykin, he’s all about design – the covers are essentially the same, but with different characters in the foreground not showing their whole face, the motifs of the diamond, crown, star, heart and cross above the styilised font all look sharp. He’s always been one of the most stylistic artists in mainstream comics, and he certainly knows how to draw the hell out of a comic book page, even if it’s in a televisual style (perhaps why he felt so at home in television for so long).
He brings this in spades to this project – an update of the DC superhero team, the Challengers of the Unknown, much like his great update of The Shadow back in the 1980s. He starts off with something to stop you flipping the channel, I mean, to keep you reading: the wife of the English prime minister gets her head blown off live on TV. Then Chaykin kicks his design skills into gear; the sound FX as a backdrop for the page, the newsreporters on TV across the pages, and the introduction to the five main characters. For each, there is a page of violence, followed by an identical sequence of panels: the face of the character naming themselves with their hand to their mouth to show their ring with its name-based symbol on it; a close-up of the eyes; then two rows of three panels of strange dreams, then a final page-wide panel of their feet walking away.
The stupidly named Zach Dyamond, Tessa Crowne, Rydell Starr, Kendra Harte, Holden Crosse are our improbable protagonists. They end up at Long Beach, where, on the last page, an oil tanker is blown up …
(It is interesting to note that the DC Hot List This Week column states about the book: ‘In a world devoid of super-heroes …’)
Obviously, with such unlikely names, our protagonists survive, with identical headwounds and identical outfits, of mostly black spandex, while TV covers the ‘terrorist attack’. And Mae Nash Price, 100 years old and looking good, who runs the media (the liberal conspiracy of someone behind everything, dictating world events), is angry because she wasn’t responsible for the disaster – she reckons it must be Tom Byshop, a modern day pirate, as a message to her. She sends Miss Brydge, her operative, to get them but they pull some kung fu moves out of nowhere and they are not captured.
Reporting back to Price, Lowell Parker, CEO of KnowNowNet and one of the most powerful men on the planet, mentions Morgan, Haley, Ryan and Davis (the original COTU) to give us a connection back to the first team.
Our protagonists turn up to what they think are their own safe places (and admit that they had changed their names, thank God), only to be located by Brydge, leading to a great shoot-out in the third issue. The sound FX as a constant background art, it’s some great design by Chaykin. The group escape in a chopper and remove the computer chips from their heads. But then they decide to try hypnosis to get some answers. Which they all agree to. Huh? How does that suggestion not get ridiculed? I think Chaykin has spent too much time in LA … However, it does lead to a top-notch two-page spread of 40 panels that gives us all the information we need about the five: they’ve been in the armed forces, they were captured, brainwashed, changed their names and weekly visits to an office in Long Beach (all the characters sneering all the time, much as I imagine Chaykin does himself), all of which was to alter them to become better human specimens.
Now with this knowledge, they end up going to Byshop’s boat, where they start shooting but then it all stops. Just like that. Sounds plausible. Meanwhile, they have been identified as terrorists by the TV channel that Price and Lowell own and control, and Lowell shots Brydge in the head for failure and he gets a new cadre ready.
We are told that the original COTU were distracted with wild fabricated fantasies, just to keep the Hegemony a secret – ‘a secret society of multibillionaires who rule the world from behind a screen of night and fog’ (and who keep the ‘Negroes, Orientals and Hebrews” out of this society). Byshop tells them that they were trained to be assassins (he even knows their original names); Chaykin brings out his mad design skills, with another set of fiver near-identical pages showing their original faces, a fight panel, walking on steps panel, fingering their ring (ooer, sounds a bit rude) panel, and a panel of them talking with Brydge. He does know how to tell a story.
Kingge (what’s with the names?) and his cadre find them all and Zach gets his head cut off. The beginning of the fifth issues see his head rolling still on the first panel – that grabs your attention. To keep things going, Byshop gets shot in the head in the next page. These challengers aren’t expendable.
We get more about the secret rulers of the world (with mentions to Elvis, Walt Disney and Princess Diana) – I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a piss-take or not – who are responsible for Hitler, Stalin, the stock market crash, the Depression, Marilyn Monroe (Brave New World and 1984 being clues to their existence). The original COTU, the ‘so-called comic book’, ‘subliterary forms’, ‘using popular culture as an instrument of social engineering’, all part of the plan. So, our remaining group go to Price who shaved off their hair and takes them to Hegemony’s secret lunar colony, where they’ve been for 50 years with all the tech the German scientists developed, where the Hegemony will stay and leave Earth to the mongrels.
Things don’t work out quite as expected, as these things never do, and the new Challengers of the Unknown are created. Although, based on the lack of anything resembling new material featuring these characters, it would appear that the new group didn’t quite take. It could be the times; this isn’t the 1980s anymore (the update does feel a little old school), and the modern comic book fan doesn’t want anything too new. Although the story isn’t too bad, it’s nothing particularly special except for Chaykin’s stylish artwork. It’s an interesting footnote to the COTU timeline that seems out of place in today’s comic book world. At least Chaykin is back in comics again …